Soper proposes rival Twenty20 scheme to include all 18 counties

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The Independent Online

While English cricket is still digesting the proposed nine-team franchise, money-spinning Twenty20 tournament which would be city-based, it was revealed yesterday that a rival scheme is also on the table.

The England and Wales Cricket Board is reportedly to consider the franchise idea, mooted by MCC, Surrey, Hampshire and Lancashire, next Tuesday. But Mike Soper, the former ECB deputy chairman and ex-chairman of Surrey, has said that he submitted a scheme to Lord's outlining his thoughts for a new tournament four weeks ago. The difference with his plan is that, unlike the franchise one, it will involve all 18 counties.

Soper, who is believed to be preparing to stand for election as ECB chairman next spring (he lost out to Giles Clarke in the lastelection 20 months ago), feels it important that no county be left in the cold, which would be the case with the much-publicised franchise plan.

Soper, who will be president of Surrey next year, also foresees a huge increase in television and sponsorship interest in this abbreviated form of the game, and for that reason wants Twenty20 coverage to be excluded from any future contract.

The current agreement runs out after next year's Ashes series against Australia and negotiations are already under way for the next broadcast contract. Soper fears that there is no thought of a separate deal for any Twenty20 cricket. "I am just hoping that they haven't already done the deal," he said.

His plan is relatively simple. "You have to create a window in the season for an additional competition," explained Soper. "To do that I would axe the 40-over competition and the University matches at the start of the season. But the County Championship is sacrosanct.

"We have to make the assumption that everything that everyone is saying about the Twenty20 is true, that it is going to be highly profitable, because if that is not the case then there is no point in putting forward any new proposals.

"But to take it further forward it needs more money, and to get more money you need bigger crowds. At the moment only the Test match grounds have the sort of capacity to cope with an upsurge in public demand.

"Now there is potentially a lot of money swilling around for Twenty20 cricket. Millions and millions. I believe in the 18-county concept. There are nine grounds which can stage Test cricket and nine that cannot. To make money for the whole of cricket I believe we should have two leagues of nine, split into Test match grounds and non-Test match grounds.

"For the first three years, whatever the money is from TV and sponsors, and I have heard sums of between £40 and £50 million, should be split on a basis of two-thirds to the large grounds and one-third to the non-Test match grounds. But the non-Test match grounds have to be helped to improve their facilities and increase their capacity. Therefore I propose that the Test match grounds lose £500,000 of their annual ECB handout, presently £1.3m, and that half a million goes to the nine smaller grounds to help them to finance ground improvements.

"After three years there should be promotion and relegation, two up, two down, and provided the promoted county's ground meets the criteria as far as capacity and quality facilities are concerned, and I think the minimum capacity should be 18,000, then they be promoted. And the ECB money should then revert to an equal share-out among all 18 counties."

Soper feels that the top division teams should still receive the lion's share of the TV and sponsorship cash, but overall he reckons everyone benefits. Counties end up with improved grounds, greater capacity that in turn attracts advertising, sponsorship and TV interest.

In theory, he noted, every county could thenhave the facilities to stage international cricket in one form or another.

l MCC president Mike Brearley, yesterday made it clear that the headquarters of cricket had not backed the nine-team Twenty20 franchise idea even though Keith Bradshaw, the chief executive of cricket's most exclusive club, had put his name to it.